Kwame Anthony Appiah’s fascinating work The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen argues that significant social change occurs only when humans shift from acceptance of any given practice to questioning (and eventual outrage) that we ever let that practice happen. From slavery to foot binding, he posits that some practices were just done – without question or even thought – until they were considered such reprehensible concepts that we changed our behavior.
In many ways, women’s education has followed a similar moral shift. For centuries, women simply were not educated. Beyond learning from their mothers how to sew, clean, cook and take care of children (and husbands, of course), why would a woman need an education? Pointless, ridiculous, expensive … can only end badly.
Over time, of course, the idea has shifted from not educating women, to questioning whether we should educate women, to seeing that we absolutely must educate women. Increasingly clear is that this is not just a moral imperative (although that alone is certainly reason enough to proceed), but an economic, cultural, and social imperative as well.
Societies that educate women are stronger, safer, healthier, wealthier, and more stable.
Meredith College’s history tells us that the idea of Meredith was discussed for almost 50 years before its actual establishment. That Meredith College’s founders accepted the premise that women should be educated, even without the extensive data we now have showing the multi-faceted benefits of societies populated by educated women, speaks to the moral heart of our founding. It speaks, further, to the ongoing imperative to continue to offer excellent education in all its forms.
For 125 years, Meredith has adapted the education we offer to changing realities in our world. While honoring the foundations of the liberal arts, the curriculum has certainly changed with the addition of professional studies and new majors such as public health and criminology.
Additional change has come through expanding opportunities to learn outside the classroom, through study abroad, highlighted by the establishment of our learning site in Sansepolcro, Italy; undergraduate research with opportunities to study with our own top faculty and in sites throughout the world; service learning, which asks students to apply what they learn in class to community settings to make a difference; and internships with top-tier employers. Athletics and the recent addition of lacrosse and track and field are wonderful reminders of the competitive spirit of women. New student organizations such as those that focus on career networking, sustainability, and fighting human trafficking are extraordinary venues for practicing advocacy for change.
Meredith’s social regulations have certainly changed with relaxed rules about curfews (there are none), male visitors (we welcome men at certain times under certain conditions), chaperones (you are kidding, right?) and required dress for being seen in Raleigh (nope). All these changes happened in evolutionary ways, and Meredith will continue to evolve over the future.
So what might the future bring? Surely, new programs, new opportunities for learning beyond the classroom, and new technologies that impact teaching and learning. Our clubs and organizations will continue to evolve as our students band together to explore conditions in other countries (and in our own backyard) that demand change. And, yes, social regulations will also change as we balance the safety of our students with their need to practice adult decision-making.
In short, Meredith will continue to evolve as she always has. We fully commit to the moral imperative to educate women to be the informed change agents they truly are, making a difference in the world by recognizing and speaking out about all kinds of circumstances, threats, injustices, and opportunities that face humanity. Serving as teachers, engineers, social workers, artists, writers, scientists, and a host of other roles, they will continue to weave their contributions into the fabric of our lives and make us all better.
This is, after all, what has made Meredith and her graduates strong … for 125 years. And that is our future as well.
Originally published in Meredith Magazine, Spring 2016. This column is an excerpt from President Allen’s remarks given at the Gala to celebrate the public launch of Beyond Strong | The Campaign for Meredith.